Adam Abraham’s “When Magoo Flew”

When Magoo Flew book cover

Adam Abraham’s new book, which has just been published by Wesleyan University Press, is an easy book to recommend to anyone interested in film or animation history. I was one of the anonymous readers Wesleyan engaged to evaluate it. A brief excerpt from my confidential evaluation is used on the back cover as an endorsement; but I would like to say a few more words on why the book is so important. (I did have some reservations, but they did not hesitate me from urging its publications.)

Until now, one of the many glaring gaps in animation, film and TV history has been the lack of an authoritative (or even a superficial) history of UPA, which was the most important American animation studio in the post-World War II period. (I do recall a self-published work issued on ditto whose circulation was obviously limited and lacked the scholarship of Abraham’s book.) The studio’s films, ranging from John Hubley’s Rooty Toot Toot and Ragtime Bear (which introduced Mr. Magoo) to Bobe Cannon’s Gerald McBoing Boing and Ted Parmelee’s The Tell-Tale Heart, were seen in their day as revolutionary and had a profound influence. Their films changed the way animation was designed and set the tone for not only for much of what followed (especially TV programs), but also helped define the field of motion graphics, including the development of the modern title sequence (predating the better known work of Saul Bass).

The studio has been largely neglected, in part, due to the lack of books such as this, as well as the lack of corporate support by the various rights holders (e.g., until recently, the best collection of UPA films on DVD was found as extras on the Hellboy special edition DVDs/Blu-Rays owing to Guillermo del Toro being a UPA fan ). As I noted earlier here, two new DVDs containing the bulk of UPA’s theatrical work are also now available.

Over the years, there has been talk of someone doing a serious study of the studio, a project pushed by the family of UPA-cofounder Steve Bosustow (I recall Charles Solomon once being bandied about as a possible candidate).

My biggest complaint is that the author’s knowledge of animation history pre-UPA seems limited. It’s almost as if he’s channeling the views of Disney animation artists in the 1930s and early 1940s who went on to found UPA, who thought of themselves as the center of the animation universe. This leads to a somewhat parochial view of the film and animation world at the time of UPA’s birth. In his research, Abraham’s also misses some important articles, including Michael Frierson’s  "The Carry Over Dissolve in UPA Animation"in the 2001 issue of Animation Journal. But these are not game changers and this is certainly a book I can easily recommend.

UPA News: Two DVDs and a Book

UPA Classic Cartoon Collection DVD coverJerry Beck at Cartoon Brew breaks the news that two DVD sets devoted to UPA’s theatrical cartoons are coming out soon: UPA Jolly Frolics due out on March 5th from Turner Classic Movies and  The Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection 1949-1959 which s due out June 19th from Shout! Factory (both are available for preorder). Until now, the best DVD source for them was the Special Edition set of Guillermo Del Toro’s HellBoy. which includes three Gerald McBoing shorts plus The Tell-Tale Heart as extras. (Del Toro is a long-time animation fan and has been working lately with DreamWorks Animation, where he’s slated to direct a forthcoming movie.)

These films have been shown intermittently on American cable channels, but such major titles as John Hubley’s Ragtime Bear (which introduced Mr. Magoo) and Rooty Toot Toot will now be available in restored versions (they were previously available on out-of-print VHS versions). Because of their lack of availability, the importance of UPA to post-World War II American and international animation has largely been overlooked.

imageIf this isn’t enough, Wesleyan University Press will be publishing Adam Abraham’s When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA which is scheduled to be published March 9th. (It is also available for preorder at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

By the way, I reviewed the book for the publisher, but will hold off my comments until after it comes out; but I should note I recommended Wesleyan publish it.

“It’s Not Cricket to Pass a Picket”– The Disney Strike 70 Years Later

Disney Strike Are We Mice or MenMay 28th marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Disney strike by members of the Screen Cartoon Guild (later the Screen Cartoonist Guild). The nine-week walkout, precipitated by the firing of Art Babbitt, the head of the Guild’s Disney’s unit, is a legendary event whose full story has yet to be told. Though I may someday finish my history of the beginnings of the union movement in American animation, I’m obviously not going to do it here. Rather, I thought I would say a few words about the strike’s place in the history of the labor movement within the film industry and a bit about how it affected animation itself.

Disney Unit of Screen Cartoon Guild On the Line cartoon 5 June 1941

The strike was, in a sense, was the closing event of the Hollywood labor wars of the 1930s and seemed to end the Chicago mob’s control over The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the industry’s largest union. Specifically, the Disney strike was the last stand for the mob’s man in Hollywood, Willie Bioff, who tried to prevent being sent to prison by (unsuccessfully) trying to settle the strike on Disney’s behalf.

The unions which supported the strike, under the leadership of Herb Sorrell, the charismatic leader of the studio local of the Painters and Paperhangers Union (under whose aegis the Guild operated) subsequently formed the Conference of Studio Unions. The Conference, after the war, became involved in a series of strikes, including the Battle of Warner Bros. (which I wrote about here), which led to the blacklist, the ouster of the Guild from the major studios and the rise of Ronald Reagan.

disney strike wolf detail

As for animation industry, the strike marked the end of Disney’s Golden Age. And like the Fleischer strike four years earlier, it caused an almost indelible  rift between strikers and nonstrikers. It also led to a heated discussion, especially among strikers and Guild members, about the artistic direction animation was going. This discussion laid the groundwork for the formation of UPA, the studio which changed the face of animation in the 1940s and 1950s.

Images: The drawing on the top is from a mimeographed “Strike Summary” published three weeks into the walkout. The second is from the June 5th issue of On the Line, the daily mimeographed newsletter the Guild’s Disney Unit issued during the strike. Both were copied from originals in the Urban Archives Center of California State University, Northridge’s Oviatt Library. The last image is the last panel of a Guild comic strip version of Three Little Pigs published in a newspaper during the strike which I have seemed to have gotten from a posting at Shaneglines.net.

P.S.: July 7th, 2011.The cartoon from the Disney strike newsletter, On the Line, was probably done by Dan Noonan, a junior animator who did story sketch work on the side; Noonan’s struggles to get by when he first came to Disney helped the Guild’s organizing drive. The newsletter itself was edited by Phil Eastman, best known today as children’s book author P.D. Eastman.